Dear Mr. Spielberg,

My name is Nicolás Calzada.  I am a first-year graduate film student at New York University.  For as long as I can remember I have been a great admirer of your work.  I believe that film, like all art, is about more than telling a story.  It is about enriching, fulfilling, and inspiring its viewers with moments of beauty.  It is about those rare moments in time when, as viewers, we are lifted beyond the screen and come to understand something new about humanity and, ultimately, about ourselves.  Such is the calling of every artist and, for this reason, as a young filmmaker I consider you to be one of my greatest inspirations.  From E.T. to Schindler's List, from Jaws to Saving Private Ryan, I cannot think of many bodies of work that have brought us more moments of beauty, more insight into the greater, and sometimes darker, sides of each one of us. 

It is a lamentable human characteristic, however, that we often only express our feelings when we have something critical to say.   I wish now that I had written you earlier to tell you how much your life and your work has meant to me and not only now, when for the first time in my life, you have greatly disappointed me.  Please bear in mind as you read this letter that it comes from someone who has nothing but the highest regard for your work both as a filmmaker and as a humanitarian. 

In fact, I only write to you today because, as the man who brought us Schindler's List and initiated the video history project which records testimonials of Holocaust victims, I have always considered you an eloquent opponent of tyranny, oppression, and the suffocating bonds of hatred.  I also believe that you understand the importance of history, of ensuring that the truth about atrocities committed by governments be preserved for all to know and learn from.  It is for these reasons that I cannot understand the events surrounding your recent trip to Cuba. 

First of all, I applaud your desire to visit Cuba and speak with young filmmakers at the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry.  I also respect your call to end the American embargo on Cuba.  There is a wide range of opinion on the issue and I respect people's stances no matter where on the spectrum they fall.  I am astonished, however, at your failure to realize that by wining and dining deep into the night with Fidel Castro (as so many celebrities have) and by letting your visit end without a single critical remark or question (except those directed at American policy), you have helped bring legitimacy and positive press to a tyrant whose 43-year rule has seen many of the same atrocities so powerfully depicted in your Schindler's List.

I am quite certain that in your lively discussion of history, Mr. Castro failed to mention a few things.  A compelling parallel could have been drawn, for instance, between Oscar Schindler's bold moves in opposition to his government and the myriad of dissidents in Cuba today who live in fear or suffer in prison because of their stance against Castro's rule.  Did you know that a mere two days before your visit, Oscar Elías Biscet finished serving his three-year prison sentence for hanging a Cuban flag upside down in protest of his government?  Did you know that mere weeks before your visit, Oswaldo Payá was awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize by the European Union or that Mr. Payá is considered by many to be the frontrunner for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize?  Perhaps Castro forgot to mention him.  Like Oscar Schindler, Mr. Payá gained fame for making a list of his own.  According to the constitution imposed on the Cuban people by Fidel Castro, a petition signed by 10,000 Cuban citizens is required to call a special election that could change power.  Seeing a loophole through which he could use the system to non-violently oppose the system, Mr. Payá risked his life and endured constant surveillance, beatings, and the threat of imprisonment to gather 11,000 signatures.  Would it have been so difficult Mr. Spielberg to match your plea to end the embargo with a plea to Fidel Castro to honor the constitutionally legal petition organized by Oswaldo Payá? 

The historical parallels do not end there.  It is evident in your work that the famed book-burnings of the Nazis horrified you and captured your imagination.  Perhaps those images will come to mind when you hear the story of Cuban psychologist Ramón Humberto Colas and his wife Berta Mexidor.  They gave birth to the first independent library in Cuba, designating their 800 books as free to borrow for any friends and neighbors who wanted to read them.  Since many of these books posed a threat to the ideology of Castro's rule, the couple was evicted from their home, denounced by the (state-run) press, and fired from their jobs.  Their daughter was expelled from school and both parents suffered repeated arrest.  Their books were all confiscated.  Surely, Mr. Castro boasted about Cuba's nearly perfect literacy rate.  Did you think to ask him what good the power of literacy serves if one cannot use it as one sees fit?

I still recall seeing the powerful image of the star Jewish people were forced to wear on their arms the first time I saw Schindler's List.  How horrific, I thought, that an entire group of people could be branded like that and subject to brutal treatment simply because of the religion to which they belonged.  I am amazed that a filmmaker with your empathic imagination could not see a similar phenomenon occurring before your very eyes in Cuba.  You did not realize that by sleeping where you slept and eating where you ate, you were contributing to a methodical system of apartheid that has been in place in Cuba for decades now.  It is not an apartheid of race or religion.  Instead, the dividing line here is between tourists and Cuban nationals.  Had you done any research prior to your trip to Cuba, it may have occurred to you to ask the concierge at your hotel if you could rent out another room for a friend of yours.  Before he could finish uttering "of course," you would have mentioned that your friend is a Cuban citizen.  You would have watched the expression on his face change, a slight tinge of embarrassment arise as he explains to you that Cuban citizens are not allowed in Cuban hotels or beaches.  Perhaps you noticed that the grocery store full of food you entered to buy a snack only accepted dollars.  Did you think to ask, "Aren't Cuban citizens paid in pesos?"

The parallels go on and on Mr. Spielberg.  Castro may not be responsible for the deaths of more than six million people, but I should not have to remind you of the over 17,000 men, women, and children, who have perished in the Florida Straits, so desperate with their lives in Cuba they were willing to try and float 90 miles on a flat tire.  Nor should I have to remind you of the thousands of people who have suffered decades of imprisonment or have been executed for their stance against the government, including almost all of the true leaders of the revolution.  Again, I am disappointed that you did not think to ask Mr. Castro what was meant by the word paredón, chanted so often throughout his 43-year rule.  It means "the wall" and it is what Castro spurs his own people to chant before "counterrevolutionaries" are tied to a wall and shot in front of all.  You can search any extensive collection of archives and you will see some of that footage for yourself.  I know many Cubans who could not stomach watching the executions in Schindler's List because it was a far-too-vivid reminder of what they had seen with their own eyes in Cuba. 

Not even concentration camps have been absent from the Cuban landscape in the last 43 years.  You said during your visit that a great movie should be made about Cuba.  One already has been.  If you haven't already seen it, I recommend Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls.  For its brilliance and beauty, it took the Venice Film Festival by storm just a couple of years ago.  In it, you get a sense of how homosexuals have been treated throughout Castro's rule and you come to understand what "Mira Flor" and "The Isle of Youth" have meant in Cuba.  Prettier names than "Auschwitz" perhaps, but the horrors committed in them cannot be masked by any name.  After seeing the film, it will not be difficult to understand why organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations have condemned Castro's abuse of human rights year after year.

I love Schnabel's film for another reason.  It is a poetic reflection on the fact that beauty and art are what stand most at odds with tyranny and hatred.  It is a film about the capacity of beauty to thrive even in the most horrific of circumstances.  It is a film I could have seen you making.  Given all that I have said, I hope you can understand why it was one of the biggest disappointments of my life to see you validate a tyrant as you did.  Countless celebrities have flocked to Cuba and recounted long nights spent talking with the "charming" and "cultured" Fidel Castro until the dawn's early light.  It always upset me (Hitler could be this charming - remember the home footage of him playing with children? - would they want to spend their nights talking to him?), but never enough to write one of them and tell them so.  It was enough for me that the world's leaders and intellectuals had finally come to realize the horror of his rule - let the celebrities do as they please.  I have much more respect for you, however.  As I said, I think you are as gifted an artist and giving a humanitarian as there is.  For that reason, I expected you on this trip to be the eloquent enemy of tyranny that you have always been, but instead you insulted the memory of the people you have portrayed and those of all the Cuban people who have died at the hands of Fidel Castro.  I still hold you in extremely high esteem, however. And I am confident that if you look into any of the arguments mentioned above, you will come to realize for yourself the amount of suffering that has come out of Castro's rule. 

Nick Calzada